Desperately Seeking the News 

Lowering the dam

Lowering the dam

Misleading editorials in both Nashville dailies notwithstanding, it now appears that TVA Chairman Craven Crowell had little to do with a controversial proposal before Congress to abolish or transfer to other agencies all of TVA’s non-power-related functions.

What the papers called Crowell’s “bold” and “politically smart” idea is also described, virtually word-for-word, in Clinton’s new budget. That thick document was being printed about the time the TVA chairman started lobbying Congress to strip TVA of its conservation, navigation, and flood-control duties. A paragraph buried deep in a recent Banner story said Crowell now admits the idea of dismantling TVA “originated as a result of discussions” with Clinton’s budget office. Apparently asked by the White House to take the heat for attacking TVA, the agency’s chairman didn’t even bother to obtain the approval of TVA’s three-person governing board before he publicly called for the agency’s dismemberment.

To put it mildly—as Nashville Congressman Bob Clement did last week—it appears neither Crowell nor the White House has “thought through” these proposals. Crowell has no clear idea of where, or how, TVA’s responsibilities are to be transferred. And the White House budget, while showing a $100-million-a-year savings by eliminating money for managing TVA’s locks and dams, contains no provisions for increasing funds to other agencies that might assume those duties.

Clement, a former TVA director, understands better than most why Clinton’s plan threatens the agency’s accomplishments. He also understands that the plan will eventually lead to the sale of TVA’s electric operations to a private utility.

For 80 years after the Civil War, the Tennessee River Valley was one of the nation’s poorest regions. It was kept that way, in part, by discriminatory, Northern-controlled railroad rates and by a web of interrelated power companies, also controlled by Wall Street, which priced electricity at rates many Southerners couldn’t afford.

TVA broke that pattern. By opening the Tennessee River to year-round navigation and lobbying the federal government for fairer transportation rates, TVA helped free the Valley from the railroads. By stringing transmission lines to remote farms and selling electricity at a fraction of the price charged by private utilities, TVA transformed the region’s economy and established a yardstick by which to judge electric rates in other areas.

Put simply, Clinton’s proposal kills the idea that made TVA different. It scatters the agency’s functions into a dozen bureaucratic pigeonholes. Even in terms of power production, the White House plan makes little sense. “What good does it do to own the dam,” a former TVA director asked rhetorically, “if you can’t control the water behind it?”

Only one state newspaper, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, is reporting the implications of TVA’s fragmentation. “TVA non-power cuts cause counties confusion, fear,” said a headline in Sunday’s edition. A week earlier, the paper tried to interview the one person in Washington who can do the most to ensure that TVA’s mission remains intact. “Gore keeping mum on TVA’s future,” read the paper’s front-page. According to a vice-presidential spokesperson, Gore is convinced that the breakup of TVA “is still in the proposal stage, that no final decision has been made, [and] that these are things that need to be looked at.”

The Tennessean led the public crusade that brought TVA power to Nashville in 1939 and gradually eliminated the dense coal smoke that choked the city. For years, the paper carried the motto “In the heart of TVA” on its masthead and assigned a full-time reporter to cover the agency.

Today’s Tennessean, however, has no memory of this story. It applauds Crowell, a former staffer at the paper, for promoting the same plan that President Reagan suggested a decade ago. (Crowell, then a TVA publicist, and Gore, Tennessee’s junior senator, helped beat Reagan’s proposal.) The paper also praised Crowell for trying to take control of the Corps of Engineers’ dams on the Cumberland River, a “new” idea to The Tennessean but one repeatedly proposed by TVA and rejected by Congress during the 1930s and ’40s.

Sex and soul

February ratings madness infects all three local television stations. But even by television standards, WTVF-Channel 5 ( ) is going overboard this month to narrow the gap separating it from WSMV-Channel 4 ( ), which has long been the city’s dominant news station.

In “Crackdown on Crime,” which aired during Week 1 of the ratings sweeps, a former professional burglar showed viewers how to rob a house in three minutes—where to break in, what to look for inside, and even where to park the getaway van. Ostensibly to educate the public about the dangers of home burglaries, the station twice showed the ex-con dragging a screaming, make-believe victim into her bedroom at gunpoint.

The next week, Channel 5’s Ben Hall took a hidden camera into a so-called lingerie store, and anchor Vicki Yates warned viewers that “bras cause cancer.” Her diagnosis was based on a questionable theory that a local health expert debunked on the air.

At 6 p.m. Monday, the station asked, “Do souls exist?” and announced “what some say is scientific evidence” of the soul. The “evidence” came from a turn-of-the-century experiment in which a doctor, after weighing a body just before and just after death, concluded that the soul weighs “one ounce.” With sepulchral voices rising and falling in the background, and the camera flashing occasional scenes from a graveyard, reporter Lydia Lenker interviewed a minister, a priest, a rabbi, and a Hindu about the meaning of “soul.” Her conclusion: “If you believe in a soul, then you are likely a religious person.”

Nashville’s second-place station has a first-rate staff of professional journalists who will probably be as glad as anyone else when “Sweeps Month” comes to an end.


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